The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river…
-T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
The recent demise of self-exiled Indian artist M. F. Husain raises some blazing questions about freedom, society and artistic expression. It’s time we halted and deliberated over the moral vigilantism and intolerant “hollow valley” we live in. It’s time to rail against the “broken jaw” of those who crouched under the conveniently contorted definition of cultural values, proclaim themselves to be its guardians and leave people bereft of their freedom of speech and expression.
Husain’s journey as an artist is usually said to have started in 1936 in Bombay when he began painting cinema boardings. The next landmark for Husain was in 1948 when F. N. Souza invited him to become a member of the Bombay Progressives. Husain’s work is significant for the way it chronicles India’s nascent nationhood and modernization and threads its narrative into Indian mythological traditions. Indigenous motifs like horses, birds, elephants, village women, reverberate through his work alongside figures like Gandhi, Mother Teresa and themes such as “The Mahabharata,” “Ramayana,” and the British Raj. In 1996 the fundamentalist axe struck down upon the artist’s work. His paintings of Saraswati in the nude, Draupadi with her body stretched across the chaupad (the game of dice in Mahabharata) and geographically mapping of the country on the body of a nude woman (titled “Bharat Mata” by the gallery displaying the work). After facing violent vandalism of his work and struggling with legal battles of censorship, Husain left the country on a self-imposed exile. He died in exile, putting to shame the government that pretended “there are no eyes here” as well as the sections of society that either “avoid speech” or spit out hate speeches.
Whether it be the raiding of F. N. Souza’s house by the police for “obscene drawings” (1949) or the confiscation of Akbar Padamsee’s painting of a naked couple on charges of obscenity or attacks on Surendran Nair for his depiction of Icarus on the Ashoka pillar (titled An Actor rehearsing the interior monologue of Icarus) on grounds of disrespect towards a national symbol, or an art student of M. S. University, Baroda, S. Chandramohan being charged for “inciting religious enmity” and “hurting religious sensibility” through his subversive artwork – all acts of censorship work to discipline society into shutting their minds to analytical thinking.
M. F. Husain was indeed an iconic figure in the way he portrayed the encounter of modern India and its mythology and indigenous day-to-day life. As we sing a eulogy to the barefoot artist with a slender long paintbrush in his hand we must simultaneously question the role of an artist in society where intolerance is on its rise. The artists must not accept the dictates of moral policing and censorship and must in fact explore contested terrains to help create debate, new ideas and new languages. While, we for our part must not allow our world to turn into a ‘valley of dying stars’ and sensitize ourselves to the responsibility of art perception, to keep our questioning spirit alive.
Note: This article first appeared @ArtSlant.